October 6th, 2010

A plea for smarter club racing

Hardly a club race ends without imbecilian talk of someone shirking their fair share of "the work", in some ill-conceived paceline, and thus lacking a moral claim to their victory. I hereby poo poo all of this nonsense. The deserving winner is whoever first crosses the line.

Some explanation for non-racing readers. If I were to push into the wind at the head of the peloton, all by myself, I could ride the whole race at 35km p/h, or perhaps a tad more. The problem is, my heart rate would soon climb into the 170s, and stay there. Meanwhile, I could maintain 35km p/h as part of a paceline, taking turns into the wind, with my heart rate in the 150s. However, if I rode in the draft of a paceline, doing no turns into the wind whatsoever, I could maintain such a speed with a heart rate in the 130s. From such a low base rate, I could easily muster the energy for a short burst at 55km p/h, ideally with 200 meters to go, when everyone in the paceline is somewhat fatigued.

But there are times when I can't just sit back and relax. If a rider, or riders, who I know to have stamina, have broken away off the front of the race, I may need to work as part of a paceline, to help reel them back in. Alternatively, I might be in a breakaway, working alongside my temporary comrades to stay ahead of the chase group. In either of the scenarios mentioned, it may suit me to do more, or less, than my fair share of the "work" up the front, breaking the air. The beauty of cycling is that a race's dynamics requires recalculating every few minutes, and every few seconds in the final kilometers. Pacelines are a beautiful thing to be a part of, like trimming a surfboard in the sweet part of a wave, but their beauty depends on them having some purpose, aside from misplaced comradery.  

How to win on the weekend: relax in the draft of a meaningless paceline, then go nuts in the last  hundred meters.

Riders who brainlessly remain a part of a paceline that has no raison d'être, thus sacrificing their own chance of winning by not keeping their heart rates low for those moments that count, deny weekend racing enthusiasts the full range of scenarios a bike race can throw up as the finish line closes. Consider a 3 person breakaway, in which the riders have carved out a 1 minute lead, and now have 5 minutes to go to the line. If they were pro riders, they would reduce their speed by 20% at that point, to lower their heart rates for that moment when individual strength alone is what matters. Their calculated slowing of pace would be consistent with their commitment to winning, not placing, and would also keep the race alive for the chase group behind them. If it were a pro race, and 2 of those 3 leaders brainlessly ploughed on regardless, giving their rational opponent a win on a plate, there would be claims of race fixing. At club level, ploughing on is thought of as noble, and would entitle our 2 musketeers to an audience back at the clubhouse: "that guy who won, he just sat on and sat on," they would say.

And here's my complaint. No one in Saturday's peloton would ever tell either of our two musketeers that it was them, not the burglar, who ruined the race for everyone chasing, with their non-competitive riding.       

When I won a handicap with 100 starters, two weeks ago, and opened my envelope to see thirty measly dollars (just 3% of the club's $10 per head take for the day), it occurred to me why so many races have come to resemble critical mass rides. By that I mean, some races are not sufficiently to do with winning, to be considered races, and not simply "rides". What I realized was, that back in the days when nearly all of the entrance fees were paid out as winnings, when clubs had fewer expenses, riders were desperate to win. As a student, winning meant eating steak, not just more tuna mornay. Now though, who could be bothered? Usually just a few up-and-coming kids who value the glory. 

Actually, I recall having what was called a pro-license when I first started racing. Quite fitting, given my eye for prize money. Alas, it's all amateur now. But guys, could you at least treat it as though it's a race?

Bicycle Activism, Behooving Moving Style

According to Jack (the toilet man) Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, a Cambodian Peasant would rather save his pennies for a mobile phone, than somewhere to poo, because mobile phones are prestigious. A wise man, Jack does not promote the health benefits of toilets to Asia's poorest, but the esteem they can attain through the proud ownership of their own crapper. If Mr. Sim gave them away, toilets would not be symbols of status, so it is vital he sells them. Only a Singaporean could see things so clearly!

Whether we are greenies, gear heads, fitness nuts, urbanists, nature lovers or whatever, most of us cyclists are puritans of one kind or another. We fit the profile of those who would denounce consumerism from whatever angle it enters their sphere. The good news is, through meditation and our own personal spending, we can all rise above our base instincts, and see consumerism as a driver of good. It inspires Cambodians to want to own toilets, and is evidently inspiring many in the developed world to want to ride bikes.
The imitation pro team sprawling outside my local cafe each Sunday morning, in their uniform jerseys, 10K bikes on display, no idea there is a club race starting in 45 minutes (don't we all cringe!)... well these guys are 99% motivated by cycle-world symbolism. And whenever I hear anyone mocking these posers, for clipping around in their cleats in cafes, I realize the prestige of cycling is being imprinted in everyone's minds, whether they like it or not. Maybe they're irritated now, but the minds of those witnessing vulgar displays of this kind are nonetheless being primed, for that day when they too decide to kit up. That day will probably arrive when the second new car of their lifetime, fails to deliver the prestige it first promised.

Counter intuitive as this may sound, conspicuous consumption by cyclists may be doing more to promote this clean green mode of transport than all the government incentives combined. The corollary, is that bicycle activists who make cycling look undesirable, with their clumsy critical mass rides on K-mart bikes, in their tattered safety-see-me fluro attire, are most likely harming the cause. So I present you with the following 5 things, that you too can do, as a cyclist/consumer, to raise your own social standing, and that of cycling.

1. Pre-Order a New Season Team Bike   
Yes, its newness will fade but the story of it being the latest best thing back when you bought, it is something you can cherish forever. Be sure it comes with all the team sponsors' decals, and the precise components it will appear with in next year's tour of France. If the person selling it to you isn't tingling with joy from this request, you're in the wrong bike shop. Now look at me there, ten years ago, on my newer than new Team Saecco Cannondale. Hey, and there's one that was actually ridden by Cipollini! Oh, and there's Mario himself, actually riding my bike to victory. What an inspiration I was to him at the time. 

2. Parade your support for a cycling boutique 
Every major city has one. They look nothing like bike shops, with just a few bikes under spotlights and the mechanics hidden away at the rear. Brooks grips and Rapha caps are displayed like new Gucci handbags. Before long you be buying town bikes in every colour, giving them names, and bringing new grips and pedals home for them to play with.

3. Join a valet bike parking station

Even if you have to walk a long way from the bike parking station to where you work, and even if your office already provides a bike store room and showers, join one of these anyway. The sheer conspicuousness of entering with your bike on your shoulder, and leaving in a freshly pressed suit, will convince anyone who sees you that you're some kind of star. How much more recognition are you receiving than the fat CEO heading to the underground car park in his Maybach or Bentley!

4. Commission your own bespoke frame

For Australian readers, the temptation couldn't be greater, with the world famous bespoke tailor of bikes Darrell McCulloch still plying his trade on our own shores. He is most famous for shaping people's frame lugs in the shape of their actual lugs— hell, he'll CNC route the veins on your old-boy onto your handlebar stem, if that's what you want! Your family crest, your mother's tribal tattoo, or the worst colours you can dream up: requests like these are the lifeblood of bespoke. Just as a bespoke suit is sewn around you, a bespoke bike starts with your body. If you're between sizes, or if you find yourself messing about with short or long stems, stem risers, or bent seat poles, then a strong case could be made for a custom built frame, rather than one off the peg. Or if you just want a race day bike that truly stands out from the rest at the clubhouse, that will actually look better with age: think about going custom. With thousands of tube combinations at his disposal, a good bespoke tailor will make a bike you're not even aware you are riding.   

5. Wear cycle specific clothes at the office

Okay, so it can be wanky, but no one you work with knows that. You just have to stop reading Bike Snob and start having fun. The best thing is, you will be helping to make bicycle ownership more prestigious than car ownership, in the same way that Jack (the toilet man) Sim has made toilet ownership a superior symbol of ones status than owning a mobile phone in Cambodia.